By Dinesh Ramde, Associated Press
Milwaukee (AP) - Labor leaders and politicians rallied Monday in support of a high-speed rail project, mocking Republican Gov.-elect Scott Walker's to scuttle the deal and to turn down the $810 million in federal stimulus funding and hundreds of jobs it would create.
Members of the labor group AFL-CIO joined community activists at the Milwaukee plant of train maker Talgo Inc., where they called on Walker to drop his opposition of the project. They said the area needs the jobs and about a dozen speakers argued that an improved train system would stimulate local commerce and help the environment.
Phil Neuenfeldt, the president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, said the point of the rally was to remind Walker how vital the project was in putting people back to work at livable wages.
"The main point is, this area as well as the whole state needs jobs," he said. "If the rail project doesn't go forward those jobs will go elsewhere. We can't afford to see that happen."
The high-speed rail line, which would carry passengers between Madison and Milwaukee, was expected to create about 125 jobs at Talgo, along with hundreds of other ancillary positions. Talgo officials have said they won't stay in Wisconsin beyond 2012 if the state bails on its commitment to the project.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has already extended a red carpet to Talgo, saying his administration would do whatever it could to lure the train maker to his state. Officials in Illinois and New York have also said they'd gladly accept whatever federal funds are turned down by Wisconsin and other states.
Those statements led the Democratic Party of Wisconsin to put up a billboard on the freeway near Walker's Milwaukee-area home mocking him for his opposition.
The billboard has a picture of the governor-elect along with the lines, "Dear Scott Walker, Thanks for the money & jobs! Love, Illinois."
Mike Tate, the state party's chairman, said he hoped Walker will see the billboard on his drives home from Madison.
"Scott Walker claimed he would create jobs but apparently he wants to start his administration by killing Wisconsin jobs," Tate said.
Walker was in San Diego on Monday for a meeting of the Republican Governors Association. His spokesman did not immediately return a message seeking comment, although Walker's office did release a letter from three unions arguing that the federal funds earmarked for the high-speed rail would be better spent on fixing crumbling infrastructure.
Walker has opposed the project, which would be paid for with the stimulus funds, because he says the state could get stuck paying the maintenance costs. He wants to use the money for other purposes or give it back.
"Gov.-elect Scott Walker remains focused on fixing Wisconsin's existing infrastructure, namely our state's crumbling roads and bridges," spokesman John Hiller said in a statement.
That argument didn't persuade the 150 to 200 people who attended the Milwaukee rally. The Rev. Ken Wheeler of the nearby Cross Lutheran Church said the project would bring jobs to an economically depressed part of the city and give hope to the many young black men looking for work.
"Don't just do what is expedient. Do what is right. Do what is just," he said. "Invest your moral and political chips, for once Mr. Walker, on the side of the workers, on the side of the poor."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)